Play Dead is MuteMath using all of the elements of what makes them sound ....well, like MuteMath - putting it all together, and saying, ‘this is us.’
10 tracks / 51 minutes
Play Dead is the latest package of musical surprises from MuteMath – the fan base (typically ecstatic as well as typically divided) has been eagerly devouring previews and YouTube footage for weeks prior to the album’s release, trying to guess what direction the band would take. Never predictable, Paul Meany (vocals, keys), Darren King (drums, percussion, samples), Roy Mitchell Cardenas (Bass, guitar, vocals), and Todd Gummerman (keys, guitar, vocals) take one musical step forward and two steps back with an album that sounds in many ways more like the logical successor to the visceral, introspective alt-blues/rock of 2011’s Odd Soul than 2015’s bright, dance-pop statement, Vitals. If the differences between those two albums (the former sounding like a cathartic soul-baring and the latter sounding more like a party) had fans deciding which version of MuteMath they liked better, Play Dead will serve, to some extent, to appease both camps by returning to their introspective, spacey melodic ways while at the same time preserving an aura of electronica, textural sound-beds, and modern beats. In many ways, Play Dead is MuteMath using all of the elements of what makes them sound ....well, like MuteMath, putting it all together, and saying, ‘this is us.’
The infectious “Hit Parade” is a great opener, and sets the stage for much of what’s to come. Meany starts the song off in a wistful melancholy that gives way to a euphoric rock chorus. “Sun, come on around / tie yourself to me,” Meany sings in rich harmony before launching into some Beatle-esque yeah, yeahs and even a McCartney-like scream in a couple of spots.
The album continues on with the light pop of “Pixie Oaks,” a playful song about Paul’s daughter, and a signal to the listener that Play Dead will find its own way, thank you - regardless of what direction you think it should take. Electronic grooves and an up-front vocal from Meany are featured in “Stroll On,” another of many songs that lyrically seem to swerve into stream-of-consciousness once you think you’ve figured out where they were actually going. It does seem as if themes of this life and the next come and go throughout the album, and it seems that the guys still need more catharsis on the whole ‘church’ thing - but there are also themes of childhood, loss of innocence, and coping with the yin and yang of cynicism vs. optimism. You know – the usual…
Of course, if you want to get back to dancing, there’s “Break the Fever” to satisfy your pop urges. Pulsing electronic keyboard sounds and Paul’s soaring vocals follow on “Nuisance,” which fades out as unobtrusively as it faded in. With a vibe reminiscent of “Progress,” “Placed on Hold” features one of the best-written melodies on the album as well as possibly the best set of lyrics. Wonderful phrases like “’cause our picture’s bigger than the one that got framed,” and, “a gold stage for our rehearsed life” come closer to poetry than any of the other lyrics do, running the gamut from anger to hope in a single song, and ending with the sound of children playing. Whether or not it was MuteMath’s intention, the juxtaposition of the sound of a playground with a song about death is a stroke of genius and gives the term ‘play dead’ all kinds of new meaning.
The medium-tempo of “Everything’s New” returns to a more electronic soundscape and a lighter, pop-ish tone. “War” is next, and features that nasty guitar style, aggressive timing, and earthy attack that typified the alt-funk sound of the Odd Soul album. The very electronic sound of “Achilles Heel” follows, complete with a distorted half sung/half chanted vocal and an almost hypnotic outro. Closing the album in an epic way, which seems to be their wont, “Marching to The End” builds beautifully from Paul and piano to a repeating refrain powered by dramatic strings and cymbal-heavy drumming, all of which drops off to a quiet drone playing out at the end.
It’s no secret that the band has taken a couple of body-blows recently. Roy Mitchel-Cardenas, the band’s long-time (and much-beloved) bass player announced earlier this year that, although he would continue working in-studio with the band, he would no longer tour as a performing member, making his family his top priority. More recently – just weeks before Play Dead was released, in fact – the band’s charismatic drummer, Darren King, informed Paul Meany that he had decided to leave the band. In light of that, Play Dead is ironically the end of one era for MuteMath. Still, the band is in the midst of a tour and sounding great, with Jonathan ‘B-face’ Allen on bass and David ‘Hutch’ Hutchison on drums. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but to quote one of the last lines of the last song on the album: “Marching to the end, we’re marching to begin…”
I wouldn't count these guys out. Life and death are full of surprises.
- Bert Saraco
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